'Africa Remix' at the Johannesburg Art Gallery
by Michael Smith
I was extremely hesitant to write about 'Africa Remix'. The exhibition and its attendant politics have been the subject of so much critical rumination during their lengthy and intercontinental circuit. To come in at the end of the show's sojourn with the hopes of saying anything of value is a big ask indeed. Nonetheless, a show of this magnitude, indeed of this importance, cannot go unregistered. What interested me were its implications for Johannesburg.
The importance of an event like this for South Africa is huge. In the last five years Johannesburg has seen a number of blockbuster exhibitions: sweeping synopses of the careers of Marc Chagall and Joan Miro, and more recently, the curatorial finesse of 'Picasso and Africa'. All these were at the Standard Bank Gallery, and while their successes were important coups for an art scene often beleaguered by disinterest, there remained a concern that their emphases were still too Eurocentric. This was partially remedied by the Picasso show's curatorial brief, placing as it did works from Africa at the spatial and conceptual centre of its exploration.
The Johannesburg Art Gallery's (JAG) riposte, a major Dumile Feni retrospective in 2006, established something of a conversation between these two institutions, one corporate-backed, the other state-funded; one looking back to Modernism's heyday, the other actively pursuing a programme of cultural reclamation. Against this backdrop, the originally unscheduled arrival of 'Africa Remix' at the JAG is an important feather in the caps of chief curator Clive Kellner and his curatorial team: it establishes them as a force sensitive to the meanings of this show for the multicultural demographic of Johannesburg. It is my belief that the show goes beyond simply recording the trends of contemporary African art production: it functions as a kind of large-scale statement of intent for future modes of production and curation of African art on African soil.
Having said that, some omissions and placements of included works are troubling, and considering these may be of some value for understanding what the show communicates to its Johannesburg audience. In fairness, one of the biggest challenges of working with a show of this scale, originally curated for venues such as the Museum Kunst Palast in Düsseldorf and the Pompidou Centre in Paris, must surely be wrestling with its prepackaged nature. Certain works simply will not fit in. In this age when large-scale installation has become the lingua franca of big international exhibitions, floor space is at a premium. So the authoritative and essential wall-mounted works of Ghada Amer, Marlene Dumas and Julie Mehretu operate well in their spots, staying afloat amid the vicissitudes of the show as it unfolds around them.
Spatially demanding works like Wim Botha's Commune: Onomatopoeia lose out, relegated to the storage room. While such an excision is certainly the result of careful consideration, it does leave the gallery visitor, flipping through the beautiful and hefty catalogue, feeling a bit cheated. One gets a sense that one is seeing a 'radio edit' of 'Africa Remix', a truncated experience where expedience has overridden original curatorial intent and profundity. One also wonders whether a local audience, generally more attuned to the Botha's visual language, wouldn't have used this work as a touchstone from which to extrapolate and decode meanings a bit more hermetically imbedded in installations by Mohamed El Baz or Romuald Hazoumé.
Elsewhere, jarring placements and compromises have been made, again almost certainly due to paucity of space. Kwesi Owusu-Ankomah's compelling Mouvement no. 39 commands its section of the space: less lucky is the related Mouvement no. 33, which is hung around the corner in a veritable corridor (resulting from a structure built in the middle of this space to house a video projection), far too close to the opposing wall and plunged into darkness. One begins to feel that two-dimensional wall-based work is locked in a battle, curatorial rather than formal, with installation, and that the former is losing out.
A similar unease results from the display of images quite near to Ankomah's. A freestanding monolith has been built to provide wall space for Jellel Gasteli's Eclipse No. 1. On the reverse of this is a series of powerful works by Santu Mofokeng from between 1996 and 2002, collected under the title Rethinking Landscape. Mofokeng's gelatin silver prints accord in an unexpectedly powerful manner with Gasteli's near-abstract, Monet-quoting works in the same medium. The problem comes in with the apportioning of space around the works: while Gasteli's larger images have ample room in which to be viewed, Mofokeng's have considerably less, so much so that viewing them becomes awkward and difficult. The problem is exacerbated by the placement of a work by David Goldblatt (entitled George Nkomo, hawker, Fourways, Johannesburg 21 August 2002) less than 2m away from the corner of this freestanding wall. Overall, there is a sense that the exhibition's emphasis has rightly been on exposing a local audience to work they've possibly not seen before (and probably won't see in a hurry again). However, this shouldn't be at the expense of work by Johannesburg-based artists.
Nonetheless, one does emerge from the show with a more developed sense of contemporary African art, even if this is inevitably a constructed one. Strong works, like Tracey Rose's TKO, gloriously spectral in its lo-fi aesthetics, rise to the top; weaker works like Chéri Samba's Le Monde Vomissant ('the vomitting World), a painting of the anthropomorphised Earth throwing up weapons, muddle around in their didactic simplicity. Abdoulaye Konat&ecaute's L'Initiation, a series of textile wall-hangings with parts of flags (USA, Japan, France, old USSR) worked into silhouetted human figures, looks a bit like a school culture-jamming project. In contrast Mounir Fatmi's Obstacles uses razor sharp satire and an economy of means to succinctly undermine the vestiges of colonial culture. Whatever one's take on individual works, what is undeniable is the show's power in facilitating greater familiarity with contemporary African art production without lapsing into conceptual reduction.
The show also deals intelligently with the issue of artists caught up in the diaspora. It resists the urge to simply showcase the work of the darlings of postcolonial-era art (read: those who show in New York and London). Sure, Amer, Dumas and Yinka Shonibare are here, and the show is stronger for them, but they don't dominate. Rather, their works form part of curatorial investigations into issues such as gender and sexuality (Amer), torture and power abuse (Dumas), and identity and performativity (Shonibare). As such, the unequal centre/periphery configuration at the heart of much postcolonial debate is problematised rather than perpetuated, something which cosmopolitan Johannesburg audiences can only benefit from seeing manifested through careful curation.
Opens: June 24
Closes: September 30
Johannesburg Art Gallery
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